Thursday, November 29, 2012


DANGER Will Robinson!
If you haven't read the Dresden Files, the Twilight books, and The Wolves of Mercy Falls series it is entirely possible you might read something in this post that you may not want to know.

On the other hand, it is not my intent, in this particular piece, to discuss specific story elements. It's more of a commentary on style and technique used to convey gender in fiction. As a result, I will be providing examples from the books to illustrate my points. How much this will give away, I'm not sure, as I'm writing this on the fly, but you have been warned.

Males and Females and Hermaphrodites. Oh My!
Something else I need to get out before going forward. The examples I've chosen (Harry, Bella, and Sam) resonate with me specifically and may not be the best examples you would put forward, but these were the first to pop into my head when I started thinking about the subject.

I chose Harry Dresden to represent the male perspective, because the things he thinks, along with the thought process that goes with it, feel male (masculine is the proper word here, but it also insinuates a certain degree of macho-ness that I'm not talking about, I may use female as opposed to feminine for similar reasons). This shouldn't be too surprising as Jim Butcher is also male. What makes Harry such a great example here is that there are so many things to point at for illustration.

Similarly I chose Bella to represent the female perspective because she also capture the essence of her respective gender. Please, don't flood me with comments about the strength or weakness of Bella as a female character. This commentary (essay?) is not about whether Bella is the ideal female role model or not. I recognize that there are women out there that hate her and consider her an affront to the feminist movement. But affront or no, Bella IS a girl and she felt like one to me (a ton of us, of all ages, related to her as is evidenced by the phenomenon that is Twilight).

In contrast to Bella and Harry, I've selected Sam Roth. In fact, it is Sam that made me think about writing this piece. Sam is NOT an hermaphrodite as the title of this section might imply, but Maggie Stiefvater has done a poor job of making Sam feel male. It is perhaps appropriate then that she named him "Sam" which can be either gender (I've never met or even heard of a male named Bella nor a female named Harry). What a perfect seguay... I promise it unplanned ; )

A Rose By Any Other Name?
Does it matter what an author names her characters? Generally speaking, the answer is probly (<--- pay attention this spelling becomes relevant later) not. But we all have names we don't particularly care for, and I imagine most of us have run across a character with one of those names in a book we've read. My question is (if this has happend to you), how did you feel about that character? Have you found it more difficult to relate to the character (at least initially)?
My example would be Delia Peabody from Nora Roberts' In Death series. Can't stand that name. I find "Delia" simply strange, but "Peabody"? Way too cheesy, and perhaps stereotypical, for my taste. It's a sidekick name if ever I heard one (never mind that Peabody IS Eve's sidekick), and cartoonish at that. I've never been able to take her as seriously as I might have had I not brought my own preconcieved notions of the name to the table. Sadly, her name reduced the character to a caricature for me. Over the course of 30+ books, I've grown to love Peabody (alright, it didn't take that many to love the character) but the name STILL grates on me and I definitely resisted her for a while. I keep hoping she'll mary McNabb and take his name.

"Are you coming to a point anytime soon," you beg me? Quit whining, here it is. Words (like masculine/feminine above) and names carry with them connotations to those that hear... errr... read them. When you meet a character named Bella, you expect a girl, when you meet a character named Harry, you expect a wiz... err... a boy, and when you meet a character named Sam, you expect... Well, that depends on who you are doesn't it? If your girlfriend or wife's name is Samantha, maybe that's a girl, if your boyfriend or husband's name (brother-in-law in my case) is Samuel, maybe that's a boy. Hell, maybe you've had limited exposure to the name, and you have no idea what to think when you read "Sam".

No scientific evidence here, but I believe our expectations probably (<---- see what Ii did there?... used the proper spelling to lend myself more credibility... connotation matters) continue to influence us even after we learn better (see my discussion of Peabody above). Do I think writers should stick to gender specific names (particularly when they are writing the opposite sex)? Not really (Stephenie herself used Sam Uley as a character name, but then again, she didn't try to put us inside his head).

I DO think they should be conscious of it, especially if they are writing the other gender. The more an author can control her readers' expectations, the easier it is for her to lead them down the path she wants them to go. Combining an ambiguous name with ambiguous traits or behaviors stereotypically assigned to the opposite gender is begging people to criticize your characterization. Not judgin’, Maggie, just sayin’

Atashi vs. Watashi vs. Boku
"Huh?!?" you say (not you, Akira Kurosawa, I know you get it).
I presume most of you reading this don't speak Japanese (I don't either... anymore). Spanish would have been better, because I know it has something similar and more people in America speak it than Japanese, but I don't have viable examples, so you'll take what I give you and like it!

Japanese language has gender. So a Japanese girl might say, "Atashi no namae wa, Samu desu," if she wanted to say, "My name is, Sam."

A boy might say, "Boku no namae wa, Samu desu."

Either of them might say "Watashi no namae wa, Samu desu."

It is understood that if a boy is using "atashi" in reference to himself, then he is doing so in an effeminate manner. English words don't specifically have gender, but there are things (in any language) that are just more likely to come from one gender than the other.

For instance, in Twilight (Chapter 8, p.171), Bella says, " You’re always crabbier when your eyes are black — I expect it then."

First off this is an observation that a male is not likely to catch to begin with. Secondly, "crabbier"? Yeah... not so much.

A guy's much more likely to say something like, "Why so bitchy? You on your period or something?" Note that even if the guy lives with the woman, he probly (<--- a clue not to take me quite as seriously, although I am making a valid point) has to ask if she's on her period because guys don't usually pay enough attention to know when it's happening despite the fact that it's a monthly occurrence... black eyes = crabby?... not a chance. Thus the quoted statement is gender appropriate for Bella to make.

Want another example? Again in Twilight (Chapter 10, p.204), Bella says, "I can’t explain it right… but he’s even more unbelievable behind the face." I imagine this one doesn't require much exposition.

1) guys don't generally talk to each other about their love interests this way; and

2) when they do, it's generally about her actions (she's alot of fun at parties... she can drink like a fish... the girl can cook), not what is going on "behind the face".

Again, Bella's statement is very much in line with her gender.

Harry Dresden? You mean when he's not quoting a Star Wars or comic book character? Wow... that might be hard to find. Let's see...

"Murphy hung up and I said, to the still-open line, ‘Hey, if you've got someone watching my place, could you call the cops if anyone tries to steal my Star Wars poster? It's an original.’

Then I vindictively hung up on the FBI. It made my inner child happy." (Changes by Jim Butcher)

Okay, so he’s making a Star Wars reference rather than quoting a character, I told you it was a tall order didn’t I?

This is another illustration of making the character feel like its gender. By using cultural references predominantly associated with the character’s sex, we see what we expect to see in the character’s likes and dislikes.

Yes Kate, I understand. Girls can like Star Wars too. Most of us GReeps are big fans (and geeks) and can quote you chapter and verse, but let’s not get distracted here. Star Wars, GENERALLY appeals to geeky girls, and less so to the general female population, while it is much more universally celebrated among the male population, whether geeky or not!

Let’s take a more subtle look at how what Harry said conveys gender. Can you imagine the same thing being said by Bella only in reference to her original edition Magic Mike poster? No, not so much. And why? Because men tend to speak and think in terms of objects and actions, while girls tend to speak and think in terms of ideas and feelings.
So what’s wrong with Sam? Well try this one on for size.

"I was not a wolf, but I wasn’t Sam yet, either. I was a leaking womb bulging with the promise of conscious thoughts…" (Shiver pg 63, Maggie Stiefvater)

Excuse me. Did Sam just refer to hersel- errr... I mean... himself as a "leaking womb"? I don’t think anymore exposition is required on that one.

Here’s another one, only not as overt.

"I thought to myself, A life is measured by moments like these. Grace leaned her head back, neck long and pale against my shoulder, to reach my mouth for a kiss, and just before I gave her one, I saw Isabel’s wistful eyes watching my mouth touch Grace’s." (Shiver, Maggie Stiefvater)

Didn’t I already mention how guys aren’t so attentive when it comes to eyes? Certainly in a sexually charged moment like that one (you’ll have to trust me, there was dancing in the kitchen to Mariah Carey... flour was involved... it was sensual). I’m betting the last thing a boy is thinking at that moment is the "wistful" look in another girl’s eyes... They don’t multitask that well, particularly not once... errrr... other male parts?!... are engaged.

But it’s not just the dialogue that creates gender confusion when we’re dealing with Sam. He’s unusually sensitive, has a fixation for poetry, and writes ghastly love laden laments in his spare time. Not exactly the paradigm of masculinity.

I’m not sayin’ there aren’t effeminate hetero guys out there... I’m just sayin’ when a woman decides to put us in the headspace of a male character, she probably should give him a few more masculine traits and mannerism if she wants to sell it.

On Prom’s and Existentialism
Just for grins, I give you a conversation between Harry and Bella (oh! and Sam for flavor):

Bella: "He’s telling everyone that he’s taking me to prom — either he’s insane or he’s still trying to make up for almost killing me last… well, you remember it, and he thinks prom is somehow the correct way to do this. So I figure if I endanger his life, then we’re even, and he can’t keep trying to make amends. (Twilight, Chapter 8, p.163) (Classic female logic!)

Harry: "What is the point of having free will if one cannot occasionally spit in the eye of destiny?" (White Night) (Typically, non-responsive male comment)

Bella: "In what strange parallel dimension would I ever have gone to prom of my own free will? (Twilight, Epilogue, p.495) (The woman playing along)

Harry: "There are things you can't walk away from. Not if you want to live with yourself afterward." (Death Masks) (Drama much?! Maybe you ARE a girl, Dresden :P)

Bella: "I’ll be the first to admit that I have no experience with relationships. But it just seems logical… a man and woman have to be somewhat equal… as in, one of them can’t always be swooping in and saving the other one. They have to save each other equally. (Twilight, Chapter 24, p.473)(Says the girl perpetually in need of saving)

Harry: "Caring about someone isn't complicated. It isn't easy. But it isn't complicated, either. Kinda like lifting the engine block out of a car." (Small Favor)(There’s a particularly useful, metaphor, Dresden... know your audience, hun)

Bella: "I don’t speak Car and Driver." (Twilight, Chapter 11, p.223) (You tell him, girl!)

Sam: "I fell for her in summer, my lovely summer girl
From summer she is made, my lovely summer girl
I’d love to spend a winter with my lovely summer girl
But I’m never warm enough for my lovely summer girl
It’s summer when she smiles, I’m laughing like a child
It’s the summer of our lives; we’ll contain it for a while
She holds the heat, the breeze of summer in the circle of her hand
I’d be happy with this summer if it’s all we ever had. (Shiver)(Riiiiight, thanks for that, Sam.)

Bella and Dresden together: "SHUT UP, SAM!!" (Ashley, GRTtS)

In Closing...
What do you think? Are you feeling me?  Anyone out there have more to add or a particularly well or poorly written, gender related character? Did I bore you?

Sorry for being long winded... Sometimes I can't help myself ;)



  1. Wow that's the longest article so far on this blog (and yes I did read it all, although I have no idea who harrry is). You really have thought about this. This for some reason made me think of some romance books, where the authors try too hard to make the males be real males, and how that somehow feels fake too. I guess it's a fine balance.

  2. Great piece, Ash. I like your thoughtful vocabulary choices re: "masculine" and "feminine" -- masculine sounds like a shirtless guy waxing a classic car while listening to a football game, and feminine sounds like someone who faints a lot. I definitely think that men are better writing men and women are better writing women, for obvious reasons.

    I'm curious as to how you feel about Ilona Andrews' books, especially the Edge (so hurry up and read those! :P), since they collaborate. I also wonder what you think of Harry Potter -- to me that seems like a good example of a woman writing a male character well, but I have a skewed perspective so it's hard to tell :)

    And Molly likes Star Wars too ;) <3 ya!

  3. @Lolita- Yeah, romance novels are often idealization of men from a female persepective. They always feel fantastical to me, but still some writer's do a better job making me buy in than others.

    @Kate- I actually directed another comment to you about Molly and her love of SciFi. I believe she's a bigger Star Trek fan than Star Wars, but it amounts to the same thing, doesn't it.

    A couple points about that. 1) Jim doesn't but us in Molly's head (okay, he did in the last book, BUT that's not what I meant and you know it. I'm talking first person perspective). 2) Jim offsets her love of things "boy" thru Harry's perspective. He constantly expresses how female Molly is and reacts to her in that way. It's another way that Harry feels so male. He's chivalrous, often excessive and to his detriment, but still it's a genuine reaction many men have to women in their lives.

    Ilona Andrews does an exceptional job at making their characters feel authentic. They have a leg up on their peers writing as a team the way they do. Kate is a FANTASTIC example of a "Tom boyish" character that feels like a girl anyway. 0h, and I've read the first two Edge books, so I'm halfway caught up, right?

    Harry Potter? Yes. BUT J.K. doesn't write first person... it's easier to fake it that way, AND thru the series we are watching Harry grow into his manhood. While she does a fabulous job of capturing Harry's teenage angst in OotP, angst is a neutral emotion that most teenagers go thru, the series itself is actually very weak when it comes to Harry's growing sexuality, in my opinion. It didn't hurt the books, cuz Harry had bigger fish to fry, but still, if you want to talk about how well she carried off his gender, she missed the boat a little there.

  4. Gah, sorry Kate, I didn't finish my thought in the first paragraph. I ended up taking the Molly reference out cuz it interupted the flow more than I intended and the point was mostly already made in my remarks about geeky girls. ;)

  5. But isn't Harry Potter written for a.. broad audience? Sure, she kinda missed Harry's growing sexuality, but 11 year olds don't really need to read about that now do they ;) I think she found the right line between Harry growing up and not giving to much detail. She gave him a love interest that parents would allow their kids to read about :)

    Whatever, maybe I am thinking weirdly. I am a geeky girl apparently ;) I really like this post. You've really thought it through Ash! I think you're very right, for some reasons a lot of female authors make their guy characters very... well I wouldn't say sensitive, cause that would be like saying that guys aren't sensitive (some are!) Gah, can't explain why I think you're right. And Sam is an asshole, I hate that whole Shiver series.. way too romantic for me ;) and too instant. So I don't really know Sam all that well, I just had an instant hate feeling.. so I am probably not being really fair! But for me he is a great example for male gone female. Seriously, love this Ashh!